07/26/2013 05:53 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

Sex and the Novelist

When I first began writing novels, I used to think a lot about sex. It was, of course, before everything changed. Before the sexual revolution, before Internet pornography, before the "F" word became the mode of common discourse, before every form of sexual activity started to be portrayed as commonplace as traffic lights. The excitement of uncovering sex in literature is no longer relevant in today's ubiquitous sexualized culture.

I was always bold in portraying my characters in the various modes and gradations of sexual activity, but only if it was in the context of their true motivations and not some cheap add-on to deliberately induce erotic arousal. One of the dominant themes in my novels has always been the nature of love and the mystery of sexual attraction. In these explorations, sex is always in the wings, waiting to manifest itself and reveal my characters' inner drives and motivations.

The issue for me in those early days was about language, the limits of description and of course, fear of violating decency laws. It was a time when books like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Earnest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis were banned in Boston. A time when even cartoon films were carefully censored by the Hayes Office, and virginity before marriage was every mother's fervent wish for her daughter.

Of course sexual yearnings and consummation were always in play in literature, although not explicit. A reader would have to work harder to read the signposts of sexual innuendo and activity, but it was certainly evident. For most readers, the revelations needed no explicit roadmap. Sexual implications were always present and the astute reader understood the clues and coded language. Indeed, it seems rather quaint today to read Molly Bloom's sexy monologue in Ulysses or Henry Miller's graphic escapades in Paris as part of a list of once banned books in the United States.

It takes more artistry and insight to portray sexual encounters in today's "anything goes" environment than in the days when a dark veil of censorship covered the narrative. In fact, a case can be made that the more explicit the description of sex, the less adventurous and interesting it becomes.

Sex has always been present in great literature. It doesn't take a genius to figure out, for example, that the Bible is replete with the taboo subject including examples of every conceivable exercise of the venery. Shakespeare was a master at presenting sexual desire, its consequences and its power impacting his language. For the great Victorians, the fabulous Russians and the wonderful continental novelists of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, sex was an ever-present life force and its characters indulged in it with great energy and zeal. It was, however, presented in language that would hardly make a spinster blush.

There was, of course, always the underground erotica designed to excite a mostly male imagination and offer a spicy prod to masturbation or other forms of sexual gratification.
The current spate of erotica in Romance Fiction, interestingly, has its roots in female sexual empowerment. What has resulted from this phenomenon is a massive female turn-on with a lot of lost ground to cover. Romance Erotica, arguably, a euphemism for soft porn for women, is the hottest category in the publishing industry. Need I mention Fifty Shades of Grey and all it burgeoning copycats? For a novelist like myself, still afflicted with the vapors of past moral strictures, this revolutionary trend has created some soul-searching adjustments in the presentation of the sexual imaginings and activities of both genders who people my novels.

The issue is presentation and authenticity in the light of this new cultural reality of an unguarded and diverse contemporary sexual smorgasbord. There are weighty questions for a writer who must walk a fine line between literature and pornography. It is a complicated distinction. Too much or too little? Too graphic or less so? Must the genitalia be described in detail? Orgasms? Modes of penetration? The mechanics of gay sex, pedophilia, bestiality, sadomasochism, rape and a hundred other manifestations of sexuality? Are there any constraints at all? Access to most sexual acts today can be obtained with the click of a mouse.

And what about language? Should one use the "F" word, and the "C" word in one's descriptions? Highlighting the gratuitous use of expletives in mainstream music is today considered a laughing matter. To many, even these authorial meanderings might seem absurd. After all, once the mere exposure of the female ankle could stir up the male libido. So, has our culture become jaded, all our secrets revealed? Are we beyond shock? How can this supreme and essential force of nature be portrayed in literature to be both effective and authentic? And here I am, after creating a shelf of novels, still thinking about sex.

Warren Adler recently released Target Churchill, a Cold War thriller he co-authored with Pulitzer Prize nominated Churchill biographer James C. Humes. Best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, Adler has optioned and sold film rights to more than a dozen of his novels and short stories to Hollywood and major television networks. Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas), The Sunset Gang (starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Doris Roberts), Private Lies, Funny Boys, Madeline's Miracles, Trans-Siberian Express and his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series are only a few titles that have forever left Adler's mark on contemporary American authorship from page to stage to screen. The Sunset Gang also premiered Off-Broadway as a musical with music composed by the noted composer L. Russell Brown and lyrics by Adler himself. The New York Times called it, "A bittersweet musical about aging and desire... a deeper examination of love and loyalty among people over 60."

For more information on Warren Adler visit